It Makes All the Difference

As far as I was concerned, the whole world was on a fast train headed for destruction, and I didn’t want to watch. Humanity might party on the way, but the crash wouldn’t be pretty. It would be painful. Very painful. I couldn’t think about it.

So I did the next best thing. I invited myself over to my sister’s place in the country. She has one of those mini-farms with cute domesticated animals, a huge garden, fruit trees, and a stack of firewood big enough to make Paul Bunyan envious. And, yes, they and their assorted young’uns eat bacon, eggs, and pancakes with homemade maple syrup every Saturday morning.

I got there on Friday night, just to be on the safe side.

Right off the bat, Leslie laughed at me.

I carried a cup of herbal tea to the counter, pulled up a wooden stool, and harrumphed. “Hey, I’m being serious. The planet is being poisoned beyond repair… we’ll likely nuke ourselves soon…and then aliens will decipher one of our stupid transmissions and figure that we really ought to be decimated just to end the drama.”

With complete indifference to my dismal prognostications, Leslie sloshed her hands into a sink of dirty dishes, steaming water, and soapy bubbles. “You need to lighten up. Tonight you can bunk with the girls; they don’t snore much. In the morning, we’ll all eat a healthy breakfast and then, while I brandish a chair and whip to keep the kids from following, you can take a long rambling walk in the woods. After that, I’ll put you to work helping me clean the basement, we’ll play a rousing soccer game, afterward, go to Mass, and by the evening, Jasper will join us for a family-feud Ping-Pong tournament. By Sunday, you’ll be a new person.”

Heck, I thought, by Sunday it won’t matter where the world is heading, I’ll be dead.

~~~

True to her word, the girls didn’t snore. Much. With carefully placed pillows smashed against my skull, I managed to fall into a deep sleep in the wee hours of the morning. When Leslie clanged the outdoor bell calling her screaming kids and a much too happy husband to the breakfast table, I managed to stumble down the stairs with a modicum of composure. The fact that I felt like road kill didn’t appear to dampen anyone’s spirits.

But a glorious breakfast and a strong cup of coffee worked a miracle. For the first time in days, I actually felt glad to be a human. With Jasper’s assistance, Leslie managed to hold the kids back while I made my escape, and I practically skipped across the cow pasture, carefully sidestepping unmentionables, into the woods. A fun fantasy escape just for me.

Except it wasn’t.

Deer inhabited the woods and terrorized my thumping heart into regions it did not honestly belong. Stupid deer. Who knew such innocent creatures could look so darn ferocious up close and personal?

Brandishing my water bottle, I backed up toward the old Tobin place and decided to investigate the ancient ruins dating back at least…well…fifty years. It was a squirrel that ruined everything. That little scoundrel scurried into a hidey-hole by the back entrance, enticing me to follow when I suddenly felt my footing give way.

After I found myself flat on my back at the bottom of a muddy, brick lined, thank God not-full well, I said words I’m glad my nieces and nephews weren’t around to hear. Then I tried to sit up and found that I couldn’t. I tried to breathe instead.

That accomplished, I felt a tiny bit better. But I was still on my back at the bottom of a well, far from human habitation. Even if I could yell, no one was around to hear me. Well, I figured, no use straining myself. Just lie still and wait for someone to rescue me.

Did I mention I was feeling a little depressed before I fell down the well?

By the time the sun set, I was suicidal. And really hungry.

As the stars flickered on one by one, (I knew they don’t actually flicker on…but I was practically hallucinating at that point, so I wasn’t picky on the details) I wiped what I was certain would be my last tears off my face. I discovered that if I tilted my head just so, I could see more stars than I had ever seen in my life. The Big Dipper shone in splendor and since I’d never been one to stop and stargaze, I was rather amazed it actually existed. I’d heard of it, of course, but I’d never stopped to actually see it—outside of the kids’ picture book anyway. It took my breath away.

At that moment, I was glad I had breath to take away.

Then something ran across my hand. I shrieked and sat up. I’m sure I surprised whatever it was that scurried into the blackness. But even more, I amazed myself. I had been convinced that I was broken beyond repair.

Apparently not.

Did you know that stars actually move? That the sky turns? That you can see the universe from the bottom of a well?

When I heard voices calling my name, I winced. Part of me was ready to kiss the first person that pulled me out of the hole. But part of me felt a pang of regret. It was like I had made friends with some unseen universal force that sat with me, glimmered and danced before my eyes, silent yet speaking of wonders I could barely grasp.

Turned out it was a nice fireman who helped me out of the hole. And, yes, I did kiss him. On the cheek.

My sister hugged me so tight; I knew that if I hadn’t broken a rib in the fall, I broke one then. But I didn’t care. I was alive. I could breathe. And I had seen the stars for the first time in my life.

As I now stand on my apartment balcony, remembering snoring kids, bacon and egg breakfasts, rambling woods, and scary deer, I can’t help but stare up at the faint night sky. I can’t see the stars like I did at my sisters’ place. But I know they are there.

And it makes all the difference.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Start in the Clouds

“Just put me out of my misery now, would you?” Wearing a pair of worn work jeans, a plaid shirt, and mud splattered tennis shoes, Kevin pushed back from his laptop desk and swiped a large coffee mug off the side table. “I might as well try fishing for tuna at the Skinner’s pond.”

His bulky frame positioned before his ancient computer, George grinned and thrust out his empty mug. “Since you’re getting a refill?”

“What do I look like? A serving—”

“Ah, ah! Careful. Don’t lose your nice boy demeanor the moment you get offline. After all, a good woman can smell a fraud all the way across the cyber universe.”

“Sure, she can smell fraud…but can she see decency, kindness, and everlasting patience?” Kevin plowed his way through the cluttered office, scattering stray papers in his wake.

The overhead light glinting off his bald head, George leaned back on his chair, the rollers squeaking in useless appeal, and propped his scuffed boots on the corner of his desk. “I told you that this online dating thing was a waste of your time and talent. No good woman will put her face on a dating site. And those that do will only see you’re an unmarried farm boy with four kids. Not a romance in the making, my boy.”

Sloshing coffee into his cup, Kevin shook his head. He yanked a paper towel from the rack and wiped up the spill. With a steadier hand, he filled George’s mug brimful. “Look, this isn’t exactly St. Louis. Small town America has lots of land and sky but few people. Not a lot of unmarried options around here.”

“You could try the big city…visit your friend…the cool one with the long ponytail and suave attitude. He’s probably got women lining up—”

Passing George’s mug safely into his friend’s hands, Kevin perched on the edge of a ripped couch and blew on the steaming coffee. “Not really. He’s struggling as much as I am. Says that every woman he goes out with has this list…an impossible list by the way. A guy has to split the bill…or he’s a Neanderthal. Except for the ones who expect him to pay for everything, or he’s a selfish jerk. And women like beards…or hate them. Got to have a decent job that pays well, you better revere your mother, and God forbid you have a strong opinion about religion or politics.”

George snorted. “Just to be fair…”

Kevin stared over his cup. “Yeah? What?”

“Well, I happened to notice that you put on your profile that you live with your mom.”

“She’s sixty-eight years old and would be in a nursing home if I wasn’t helping her out.”

“Not exactly chick-bait, my friend.” He swallowed a sip of coffee and shrugged. “Though I admire your honesty, did you have to mention that you got laid off last year?”

“The harvest was terrible. Besides, I picked up carpentry work and made more money in the long run…”

“I know and you know…but listen, buddy… You’re going to have to explain every bloody detail or learn to leave some stuff out.”

“I suppose I should leave my kids out?” Kevin’s jaw hardened as he returned to his desk.

“Naw. I think you should tell the truth about them upfront. Your wife died. You’ve done a great job with the kids…and any woman who isn’t open to that isn’t worth your time anyway.”

“Like anyone wants to deal with…”

“What?”

“Anyone’s real life.”

George sighed and dropped his feet to the ground. “Now, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.” George folded his hands in his lap and leaned forward. “Look. Back in my day, a guy met a gal at a school dance or got set up by a friend…or maybe saw a nice girl at church or something. Heck, it just sort of happened. We had movies and stuff, but we knew that wasn’t real. Least most of us knew.”

Kevin propped his head in his hand. “But now?”

George flicked a finger at the computer screen. “Well, now, everything is done online. Shopping, banking, even this dating thing. And it’s all in the head. Works for numbers…but not so good for the heart. How many women have you reviewed just this week, say?”

Kevin shrugged. “Maybe twenty profiles…”

“See? That’s exactly what I mean. Twenty! Lord, have mercy; they all get to looking alike after five. No one can get excited about meeting woman number seven or eight…or fifteen. We’re just not built that way. We’re social beings…our attraction is filtered through our senses. All you got to go on is a few pictures and a carefully worded bio.”

Kevin dragged his fingers through his hair. “Times are a changing, my friend. I’m long past school dances, my friends are married—hanging on for all they’re worth—or divorced and bitter. And the average age of women at my mom’s church is about seventy.”

George squinted at Kevin. “You looked at twenty profiles? Really?”

“Or so…”

“And not one of them caught your eye?”

“Several did…but one gal had a weird sense of humor, another was three years younger than me, two were going to nursing school so they’ll never even think about staying home with kids, and besides…can you imagine the school loans? And the rest either had kids or had ticking clocks or—”

“Sheesh! And I thought women were picky!”

“Aw, quit! I just don’t want to get entangled in another messy family. You remember Brenda’s sister? Issues, man. Major drama. And I’m hardly in a position to take on anyone’s financial mess…”

“Do you happen to hear yourself when you talk?”

Kevin tapped his keypad and glared at George.

“Hey, just saying… You’ve decided all this stuff without one conversation, right? Or maybe one or two conversations…”

“Who wants to wade into quicksand?”

George snorted and glanced at his watch. “You do, pal. You do. You want a relationship with a woman…expect quicksand. Expect drama, financial stress, scary family closets, sick kids, bad-mood days, lonely nights, and a few headaches to boot.”

Kevin stared at his screen. “Sounds charming.”

“Yeah. But that’s only part of it. There are also the quiet talks on the couch, holding hands, smiles from across the room when you both know what the other one is thinking, the kind of hug that holds your heart in place when nothing else in the world can…” George stood and plodded across the room. He patted Kevin’s arm. “Hell, look at us. You hate how I decorate the workspace, whine about my filing system, undermine my authority every chance you get, and act like an overgrown puppy half the time. Do I mind? Yeah. But do I put up with you? Sure. And we make a great team.” He leaned down. “Now add in a great—”

George put his hand in front of George’s mouth. “Stop now. Save yourself. And me.” He shifted and glanced at his friend. “I get it.”

“Good.” George put his empty mug on the sideboard and headed for the restroom. “After work, check out a couple profiles, chat to some lucky woman. And bring yourself back to earth, man. Even if you do have to start in the clouds.”

Kevin watched his friend stride out the door. He shook his head…and grinned.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

For the First Time in Months

Standing outside the huge garage door, Madge fumbled with her keys and then handed them over to the serviceman.

Without a word, he took them and nodded.

Buttoning her coat against a bitter late winter wind, Madge forced a grin. “Sorry, I’m so clumsy. I was out at the zoo, showing the school kids the monkeys—kind of a funny how they play off each other—but dang my hands get so cold, I could probably freeze water, like one of those superhuman types on TV.”

The service guy grinned and started away. “Well, if you want to sign for the order inside, we can get things moving so you don’t have to wait too long.” He stopped by her car, frowned at the tires, circled around and shook his head. He opened the service door and stood aside.

Nervous anxiety rippled through Madge’s body as she traipsed inside. She tossed her bulky purse onto the high counter. She glanced at the nameplate with Rick written in bold letters, next to a family photo with a pretty wife and two adorable kids.

Rick punched numbers into a calculator.

Marge swallowed back her fear. “So before you get too far, you want to tell me what I’m looking at? I mean, it’s just the oil change, right?”

Rick looked up, an appraising expression on his face. “Truth is, your two front tires are as bald as any I’ve ever seen. I’m surprised you made it through the winter on those things. Your steering wheel has more tread on it.”

Madge’s courage fell to the cement floor. “Well, I’ve been hoping they would make it to June. I only have to drive into the city twice a week, so I figured—”

The horrified look on Rick’s face forced her to grip her courage with both hands. She swallowed hard. “You’re right. It’s not safe. For me or anyone. Okay, I’ll get new ones. Can you get something a little better than what I have now? These only lasted a couple years..”

With obvious relief, Rick nodded and started tapping the calculator again. “We’ll take you up a step and with the oil change we’re looking at…”

Marge knew he was looking at a number larger than anything she had in her checking account. Or would likely have in the near future. When he was done with the detailed costs, tax, she sucked in a fresh breath and pulled her bag forward. “Do you mind if I call my bank? I’ll transfer what I have from savings…and then” —she squinted as if the light hurt her eyes— “maybe you’d let me make monthly payments on the rest? I’m good for it. It’ll just take three…four months tops. My job…well…it’s not one of those high paying ones.”

Rick nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll have to order these now, and when they come in, we can get everything done at once. Will that work?”

Pulling her phone from her purse, Madge exhaled. “Yep. I’ll call the bank now and pay you what I can and then—”

A man behind Marge cleared his throat.

With a frown, Rick peered over Madge’s head.

Marge started for the door. “I’ll go outside. I can’t get any reception in here anyway.” The wind had died down, and Marge soaked in the noonday sunshine. Her heart pounded as she pressed the phone to her ear. A tap on the shoulder turned her attention.

Rick stood before her, a strange expression on his face. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Just go home, and I’ll call you when I have everything set. Okay?”

A fresh blast of frigid air careened through her thin coat. She peered at the service door. “You sure?”

“Yeah. No problem. I’ve got some things to take care of right now, but I’ll call you about arranging the balance and payment.”

As Marge gave Rick her phone number, she wondered if she had accomplished anything. She marched to her car, her keys biting into her grip.

~~~

Once at home, Marge made herself a hot cup of tea and settled on the sofa with her checkbook and a pad of paper. She had to rethink her options. She sighed and took a tentative sip. Lipton’s best wasn’t nearly so good without sugar, but hey, it was better than just hot water.

Her phone rang. Dragging her purse by the long strap, she yanked it closer and sifted through myriad objects. Once she had her phone in hand, she tapped it on. “Yeah?”

“Marge?”

Marge waited. Oh boy… Exhaustion seeped through her body.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you…and I suppose I acted a little odd when you left. But, you see, the guy in line behind you told me that he overheard our conversation, and he offered to pay for your tires if we ate the cost of labor and the tax.”

Marge froze. She wondered how long she could go without breathing. When conscious thought returned, she blinked and stared at her worn black bag slumped on the floor. “Who? Did what?”

“The gentleman behind you…well, he heard about your situation, and when you went outside, he offered to pay for your tires… but he didn’t want you to know it was him. He said he doesn’t know you or anything. Just his good deed for the day sort of thing. So that’s why I told you to go home.”

A lump swelled in Marge tears, burning behind her eyes. “I never…I mean…I can’t believe…”

“We told him okay; it’s a deal. So I ordered your tires, and you can bring your car on Friday at noon. We’ll have everything done by 3:00. That’ll work for you?”

“But I’d really like to thank him…whoever he is. And you too, of course. I can’t believe…”

“Don’t worry about it. Just bring your car on Friday, and everything will be taken care of. Free of charge. Sometimes life is good, you know.”

Marge swiped the tear from her cheek. “People are good, Rick.”

As she dropped her phone back into her purse, Marge realized that not only weren’t her hands cold, but her whole body felt warm for the first time in months.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Like Dreams Upon Waking

“You’ve checked your watch five times in the last fifteen minutes. Would you stop already?” Greg grabbed a handful of chips from the bowl on the coffee table, leaned back on the plush sofa, and pointed to the big screen TV centered on the back wall. “You’ll never enjoy the game if you keep this up.”

Tom crossed his arms, plopped down on the easy chair on Greg’s left and glared at his best friend. “You have no idea what I’m going through.”

Greg chomped on a chip, swallowed, and wiped his hand on his jeans. “I have a daughter, too.”

“She’s four!”

“Yeah, but she’ll grow up and probably date some guy with tattoos and a shaved head, and I’ll be cool enough to shake his hand, point to my gun rack, and remind him of the curfew. I’ll leave it at that.”

“Ha! If I know anything about you, buddy, you’ll barricade the door until he leaves the names and addresses of his closest kin. And even then, Sally-Ann will be wired for sound.”

As if called by magic, a little girl scampered into the room and flew into her daddy’s arms. “Give me a ring-a-round, Daddy!”

With a groan, Greg pulled his daughter into his arms, centered himself in the living room, and began to spin her in a wide arc.

Tom grinned as Sally-Ann squealed in delight.

Speeding up, Greg edged to the couch and deposited his daughter on the cushions. “Enough. If you throw up, your mama’s going to blame me.”

A woman’s voice called from another room. “Sally-Ann, get your backside into your room and pick up these toys like I told you.”

Tom and Greg froze.

With a fresh squeal, Sally-Ann raced out of the room.

Tom peered at Greg. “So, you think Joan will interview the prospective dates when Sally-Ann gets of age?”

Greg nodded and stroked his chin. “Might work.” He frowned. “Sorry, man. I know you’re on your own. If you want…Joan could come over and…”

Tom checked his watch, his foot tapping. “It’s barely eight. I gave them until eleven. It’s only a school dance, but if the guy doesn’t act like a perfect gentleman—”

“Like you were?”

Tom squeezed his eyes shut a moment and then ran his fingers through his hair. He stood up. “I think I’d better go.”

“But the game!”

“I can’t relax. Besides, I have things to check out.”

“Such as?”

“You don’t think Kami would mind if I stopped by—”

“You’d have more to fear than death itself. Don’t go there. Literally or figuratively.”

“Maybe Joan could go undercover?”

“Joan happens to trust your daughter enough to babysit our kids. I doubt she’d spy on Kami…even for a good cause. Like keeping you sane.” Greg spread himself on the easy chair and nudged the chips in Tom’s direction. “Have a healthy snack and sit down. Put your mind on the game and just live through the next few hours. Okay?”

Tom plunked onto the couch and closed his eyes. “Only because I know I couldn’t stop myself from stopping at the school if I left now.”

Greg snorted. “A little self-control, man. Just a little.”

Tom opened one eye and peered at Greg. “I’ll have my revenge one day. You realize that, right?”

Greg laughed as he reached for another chip. “How do you figure?”

“Sally-Ann’s so enamored with her daddy…she’ll pick a man just like you.”

Leaping from the chair, Greg knocked the bowl over, and chips scattered like dreams upon waking.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Where Is My Hope Now?

Kevin stared at the red tube going from the pole into his arm and knew that he was going to die. At forty-five, he was still young enough to feel that he still had way too much ahead of him to quit now. But then, he sighed, I’ve had a better life than many of others. Still…

His mom’s grey head poked through the doorway. “You decent?”

With a snort, Kevin shook his head. “If you don’t mind the sight of blood flowing into my veins…I’m decent enough.” He peered down at his stained sweatpants and ragged shirt.

Ginger tiptoed into the room, her gaze roaming from side to side. Three other patients sat slumped in a line of chairs in various stages of intravenous feedings…blood, medicine…chicken soup, for all she knew. Swallowing back the ache in her throat at the sight of her son pale and drained, she squared her shoulders. No time to be weak now. Be strong, old woman. Still, her hand shook as she patted her son’s shoulder. “The nurse said you’re almost done, and you can go home as soon as they’ve made sure you’re not going to faint.” She looked around. “They give you crackers or anything?”

“Juice and crackers. Deluxe treatment.” Kevin winced. He didn’t mean to sound so sarcastic, but his back was killing him. Three hours was way too long to sit in a chair.

“Well, I’ve got coupons for the family restaurant next door. I thought we’d grab a bite before we head out into the wilds of—”

“I’m not hungry, Ma. But you can—”

“I’m not hungry either, but that hardly matters, does it? We don’t eat just to make ourselves happy. We eat to stay alive. And you need to stay alive a little longer. Hear me?”

Kevin clenched his jaw. He knew it was absurd to argue with his seventy-eight-year-old mother. She had a long-standing tradition of repeating herself until he gave in. He merely nodded and glanced over as the nurse came in and started to unplug him from the technology that saved his life each week.

After they settled in a red booth and the waitress took their order, Kevin pulled out his phone and scrolled through. There were three messages from his friend Dave at work. He frowned and pushed the redial.

Ginger pointed to the lady’s room and toddled off.

His eyes following his mom’s careful maneuvers around the café, he listened as Dave picked up the call.

“Kevin? That you?”

With a snort, Kevin laughed. “Yeah, what’da think? I was just getting blood, not a new heart or anything.”

“Oh, well, I’ve got news…”

Kevin felt a ripple of fear shoot through him.

David cleared his throat. “Hey, man, you sitting down?”

A headache building between his eyes, Kevin tapped the table top in staccato fashion. “In a booth at an overcrowded family diner, if that’s any comfort. What’s going on?”

“I hate to tell you this over the phone, but the news has it all over…”

Kevin’s hand shook and a thousand bees buzzed in his head. “What?”

“Rhonda was in a head-on collision after work today. Five-car pileup. Three dead, two critical, and one kid survived without a scratch. But Rhonda…”

“The bees began stinging. Kevin’s whole body trembled, and he wondered if he’d puke his crackers and juice all over the floor.

Dave’s voice rose. “You okay, Kev?”

Kevin dropped his head on his arms, the phone slipping off his ear. He could hear Dave shouting. “Kev? Where are you, man? I’m coming—”

He felt the phone plucked from his weak grasp and his mom’s shaky voice. “Hello? Oh, Dave. Yes, just saw it on the news. So tragic.”

Silence.

His mom’s voice dropped to bedrock. “I see. Terribly sad. For all of you. Rhonda was a dear girl…woman. Don’t worry. I’ve got Kevin with me. I’ll get him home now. If you want to meet us—”

Silence and then an assenting “Yes, that’s a good idea.”

Kevin had little memory of the drive home or how he got into bed. He only remembered the sensation of falling. And not being able to save himself.

~~~

When he opened his eyes, Kevin realized that he had slept through the night and a good part of the next morning. Groggily, he raked his fingers through his hair, shuffled from his rumpled bed to the bathroom, stripped, and took the longest, hottest shower he could stand. He stood naked and grimaced at the pile of dirty laundry on the wet bathroom floor.

He heard Dave’s voice on the other side of the door. “You want something bright or dark?”

Kevin shook his head. “Black as hell, if you can find it.”

As he dried himself, the door opened a crack and a pair of dark blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater flew through the air and smacked him in the head.

“Best I could do. You have the worst selection of clothes this side of—”

Ginger’s voice piped up. “Oh, leave him alone, Dave. You know how he is. Platypuses have more fashion sense.” She lifted her voice as if he was in Siberia rather than the bathroom. “Breakfast is ready. Better hurry before it gets cold.”

Kevin winced as he pulled on his jeans, mumbling under his breath.

When he sat down at the kitchen counter, a large platter of bacon, eggs, and toast was set in glorious array before his wondering eyes. He couldn’t believe that his stomach rumbled in salubrious joy. Traitorous things…stomachs.

Dave pulled up a stool and perched on Kevin’s right with a large cup of coffee, a faint aroma of cinnamon wafting through the air. His mom bustled about his tiny kitchen like she owned the place.

Dave watched him eat with absorbed interest. Finally, Kevin nodded to his mom. “She can make you a plate—”

“Naw, I already ate.” He glanced at the bustling homemaker. “You ever want to trade moms, just let me know. I’d even pay extra…”

An image of Dave’s fashionable mother as she commanded underlings at city hall sent a shudder through Kevin’s body. Then he remembered the news and dropped his fork. “Oh, God. Rhonda.”

Ginger turned and gripped his hand. “It’s awful, honey. But—”

Nearly leaping from his seat, Kevin felt his pulse racing. “But what? We have to accept what we can’t change? She died mercifully quick—God, I hope so!” A sob struggled to free itself from his throat. “But where is my hope now?”

With tears coursing down his cheeks, Dave took Kevin’s other hand. “Where it’s always been, man. Right here. With us. With Joe, Dan, Kelly, and all the others at work. With the nurses, the doctors, your mom, and…” He swiped the rolling tears away. “Oh, God.”

Ginger lifted her chin. “Listen, if you’d have been at work yesterday, more than likely you’d have been in that car with Rhonda. And you’d probably had died then and there. But instead, you were getting your treatments…ones that save your life one week at a time.”

Ice coursed through Kevin’s body. “But not forever.”

“No. Not forever. Not for you…not for me…” Ginger glanced at Dave. “Not for any of us.”

Kevin sucked in a deep shuddering breath and slumped on the counter. He covered his face with his hands. “So much pain.”

Dave gripped his arm. “But you’re not alone.”

Kevin looked up and met his friend’s honest gaze.

Dave nodded in Ginger’s direction as she returned to the sink. “She needs you. So do I. And everyone at work misses your ugly face.”

As Kevin felt his friend’s hand grip his arm, he could practically feel fresh blood flowing into his veins.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Die Hard Optimism

Agnes couldn’t decide which skirt to wear. Not that there was much of a selection. Her choices consisted of a black skirt reserved for funerals and formal church events, an autumn floral thing that she always tripped over because it was a hand-me-down from her sister who was a good three inches taller than her, a severe grey pencil skirt, which made her look like a desperate job applicant or a green knee-length accordion skirt that made her feel like she was back at St. Robert’s grade school.

She sighed and wondered if her daring pair of form-fitting black slacks would work. Not that she had ever actually worn them. She bought them in the hopes of one day needing them. Could this possibly be their call to duty?

She plopped down on the bed and let the weak rays of a February sun pour over her. “Good heaven. I’m agonizing over nothing. No one will notice what I’m wearing. They’ll only notice me if I trip the waiter and spill everyone’s drinks.” She shuddered at the thought.

A plaintive cry turned her attention.

“Come in honey.”

Lenora, her six-year-old daughter, wandered in, looking very much like a rumpled, exhausted princess. She had the tiara to prove her identity and the unsteadiness of a child woken from a sound sleep.

Agnes wiggled her fingers. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Her brightly speckled costume, a gift from Grandma last Halloween, sashayed and shoo-shooshed as she toddled over. She crawled up on the bed and curled into her mom’s arms.

Agnes ran her fingers through her daughter’s unruly tangles. “I’m going out for a bit, sweetie, and Grandma is coming by. She’s bringing pizza. Rumor has it that it might be pepperoni…”

Lenora hunched her shoulders as if she’d never heard of pizza and couldn’t care less if the whole world turned into a pepperoni.

With the sensation of a knife plunged in her chest, Agnes rolled off the bed, yanked open her dresser, pulled out her back slacks and a silky button-down blouse that rippled over her hips, and marched to the bathroom. “You know, I’m not the bad guy here.”

When she peered at the reflection in the mirror, she had to admit, she wasn’t the bad guy or a bad woman for that matter, though age had taken its toll. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. A hen? She turned from the mirror; best not to think about it.

By the time Grandma Mimi hustled through the front door and hung her coat on the rack, Agnes had Lenora bathed and in her best PJs.

Mimi practically swallowed the child alive in a one-arm hug and handed a frozen pizza to Agnes. “Take the wrapping off and don’t forget the cardboard. Oven at 400.”

With a half-satirical salute, Agnes marched into the kitchen.

Mimi followed.

Agnes could feel her mom’s eyes boring into her back. “Okay. What?” She turned around and ran her fingers over her slacks as if she could iron them by hand.

“Nothing. Much. Just wondering why you’re going to a work-related fundraiser dressed like a woman…”

Agnes felt the heat rise through the roots of her hair. “Because I am a woman, maybe?”

“Your husband isn’t dead. He’s just missing in action.”

“If only!”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom, you know he’s not coming back. I know he’s not coming back. That’s all there is to it.”

“But not all there is to you, apparently.”

“What’s so wrong?”

Lenora tiptoed into the room with her hands clasped above her head twirling like a ballerina.

Agnes clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against tears.

Mimi led Lenora out of the room with cooing encouragement and pulled a small box out of a large pocket. “I brought a puzzle we can put together if you open it up and lay out the pieces on the coffee table. Okay, Sweetums?”

Agnes felt her mom’s firm hand on her shoulder. Then a gentle squeeze. “You’re a strong woman, Agnes. I’ve never thought otherwise. But I know how it is. You get lonely…and it takes more than a woman can stand to be both mother and father every day…day after day.”

Agnes blinked back her tears and focused on the kitchen table. Mismatched socks still lined the edge. She scooped them into a bundle and dropped them on the counter. “I didn’t think these slacks were such a big deal. I just wanted to look…”

Mimi set the oven timer. “I know. But you’re still married. At least in the eyes of the church. If you want to change that…”

“There’s always the chance—”

“Is there?”

“I’m caught between worlds, Mom. Stuck. Never really married and never really free. I can’t move forward. Or back for that matter.”

Mimi rummaged through the refrigerator. “You got any salad fixings? A side dish would go well with the pizza.”

Agnes pursed her lips, leaned in, yanked open the crisper, and pulled out a bag of lettuce and a soft tomato. “Good luck getting her to eat anything healthy. She’d rather die of the plague.”

With quick efficient motions, Mimi tore up the lettuce and diced the tomato. She kept her eyes on her work.

Agnes got the message, sighed, and retreated to change her clothes.

~~~

It was late by the time Agnes stepped into her living room. The lights were dim and her mom was sleeping on the couch with an afghan thrown over her legs. The same afghan Mimi had given her on her wedding day. The irony struck her as funny, and she giggled. The one beer she sipped through the evening might have helped.

Mimi sat up and rubbed her eyes. “You’re home safe. And giggling?”

“Yep. Safe and sound.”

Mimi patted the couch next to her. “Tell me about it.”

Agnes tucked the green skirt under, as she plunked down next to her mom. “Well, I had an epiphany as I sat at the gloriously set table and listened to people’s conversations. One woman bullied her husband mercilessly about not getting their garage cleaned out, while another couple sat in stony silence. Then there was this kid who kept screaming at his dad, saying that he wanted to go home and watch a movie and eat real food. One girl sat pathetically by the wall, her eyes searching for someone, while a crowd circled around a handsome bearded guy like he was the greatest thing since the invention of the iPhone.”

“Sounds like a dull crowd.”

“Average. That’s what struck me.”

“That people are average?”

“That even at an expensive club, wearing the best clothes, eating sumptuous food, drinking whatever, and all for a noble cause…most of us poor human beings weren’t happy.”

“Grim observation.”

“Yeah. But freeing too. I get it now…better than before. Jim’s abandonment nearly killed me, and deep down I know that he’s not coming back. I have to accept it. We’ve got more cause for an annulment than most…neither of us had a clue what marriage meant…and we were drunk on dreams. But most of all, I see now that my life is what I make of it…right now. Today. What’s before me. You know, even when God—Creator of the Universe—lived on Earth, we weren’t happy. If He couldn’t make us happy…”

“So you aren’t striving to be happy anymore?”

“Nope. I’ve decided to reach a little higher…go for contentment.”

Mimi stretched and pulled herself to her feet. “Well, tell me about the view when you get there. Right now I need to find my bed collapse. I’m leading three junior high classes through the museum tomorrow. If the effort doesn’t destroy the rest of my brain cells…I’ll be delighted.”

Agnes stood and hugged her mom. “I knew I got it from somewhere.” She stepped to the front door and handed her a floral-patterned jacket from the rack. “Be careful on the way.”

“I only live down the street.” Dressed in her winter best, Mimi opened the door, shivered, and stepped over the threshold. Her eyebrows puckered as she glanced back. “Got what?”

“My die-hard optimism.” After shutting the door, Agnes smiled and climbed the steps to bed, her green skirt rippling over her bare knees.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

And Everything In Between

“Being rejected isn’t exactly the end of the world…just feels like it.” Gertrude heaved a long sigh. “Silly of me…to think that…but, you know, it’s…life. Beginnings…and endings.”

She launched herself from her partitioned, tan and grey workstation, pulled on her heavy winter coat, and plodded to the check out counter.

Dressed in a blindingly white parka with a fake fur fringe around the hood, her friend, Kamila, smiled as they punched in their work numbers and timed out. “Got plans for the weekend, Gerty?”

Gertrude closed her eyes, sighed, and then straightened her shoulders. Focusing, she met Kamila’s teasing gaze. “Nope. But I’ll make some. And you?”

Kamila grinned. “Timmy is coming over for the weekend. We’re going out on the town and have some fun!” She did a little arm shake with a hip wiggle and laughed.

A stab of pain made Gertrude wince. Her stomach clenched. “You be careful, Kammy. People get hurt…driving around and partying…you know.”

“You’re such a worrier!” Sauntering out the main exit, Kamila shivered in the cold blast of winter air and linked arms with Gertrude. “You need to have more fun. Besides, people get killed sitting at home too. Heart attacks, cancer, random acts of violence—no one’s safe.” She tugged at her zipper. “Might as well live while you got the chance. Can’t stay at home all the time.”

Her plaid coat buttoned to the top, Gertrude pulled her keys from her purse and punched the unlock button as she neared her Cruise. “No safe place in this world, I agree. But it’s just plain dumb to beard the lion.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means.” Kammy waved as she scrunched into her tiny sports car. “Get a life, girl, not a proverb.” The engine roared and the tires squealed out of the parking lot so fast passersby had to scurry aside.

Gertrude shook her head and murmured under her breath.

When she got into her apartment, Gertrude tugged herself free from her coat and peeled off her work clothes. She stood under a hot shower for a full five full minutes and then dressed in her comfortable well-worn jeans, fluffy socks, and a long shirt. It had a tear at the neck when she had caught it on the latticework reaching for a hard-to-reach cluster of grapes last summer, but she figured that no one would see her and who would really care anyway?

Just as she settled down on the couch wrapped in a knitted blanket, a hot cup of tea near at hand, and a mystery novel on her lap, the buzzer rang long and loud. She glanced up, a thrill of fear racing through her. It’s just someone looking for a donation…or some lady looking for a friend…or—

The buzzer insisted.

Frowning, she set the book next to her teacup, tossed the blanket aside, and jogged forward. The buzzer raged for the third time. Irritated, she swung open the door. “Hey, unless someone’s about to be murdered, you can lay off the buzzer.”

Short and stocky, Ben stood before her in a crumpled EMT uniform, his brown hair disheveled, and a wild look in his eyes. “You’re okay?”

Gertrude scrunched her face like she was looking at a pink armadillo. “Yeah. You care?”

Passing through the doorway, Ben tromped to the couch and flung himself down with a long sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, standing it up in a scattered array. “Good Lord. You know what you’ve put me through?”

Gertrude blinked. “I. Put. You. Through?”

“When they reported the accident, I recognized the vanity license plate. I called your office, and they said you’d just left. I thought you were with her!”

Gertrude slapped her cheek, all warmth draining from her body. “Kamilla?”

“Burned beyond recognition. At least her car is…it’ll take time to sort through the mess…”

Swaying on her feet, a roar swelled into Gertrude’s ears. Strong arms grabbed her and led her to the couch. Ben crouched at her side and stroked her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you like that. I was just so worried. There’s been one emergency after another… Crazy days. I’ve been working overtime…” He shook his head. “But when that call came in…I didn’t even ask. I just ran out the door.”

Before she knew what she was doing, Gertrude was sobbing on Ben’s shoulder.

By the time she had a fresh cup of tea, the blanket wrapped over her legs, and Ben’s arm around her shoulder, she had wiped the last of her tears off her cheek. “I must look awful.”

“Not to me. You look just fine. Alive. The way I like you.”

Gertrude dropped her gaze and tugged a loose yarn string. “I got the impression that…you know. You were tired of me. Too busy all the time. Working.”

“You do realize that I save lives, right? That I work hard to earn a good living…so that maybe one day we can…”

“So you’re not avoiding me?”

Ben grinned. “You know, it’d make things a lot simpler if you just ask me next time.”

“You didn’t return my messages…”

“Yeah. There is that. My fault. Sorry. Just so blasted busy. You know…I see it all the time. Misunderstandings. Couples going at each other. Kids wanting to kill themselves.”

Gertrude felt her throat tighten. “It wasn’t a misunderstanding today. Kamillia is dead. I tried to warn her…but…”

Ben harrumphed and clapped his hands together as he sat forward. “Kamilla drove like a speed demon. She was on the track to self-destruction long before you met her.” He dragged his hands over his face. “I can’t save everyone. And neither can you.” He pulled Gertrude into a tight embrace. “But I’m here now and…you know…we might make a life together. Despite this crazy world. Despite misunderstandings…”

Gertrude snuggled into Ben’s arms, her heart aching yet comforted. “Kamilla was going out on the town today…and I thought something in me had died. Guess it shows…we don’t really know. Life. Beginnings…and endings…and everything in between.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00